The Gator basketball team had been on a tear in the second half of the season. Entering Sunday’s SEC Championship matchup with Kentucky, the Gators were 13-2 in their last 15 games. But on Sunday they looked more like the team that lost to UCF and Jacksonville than the team that had steamrolled its way through the SEC. What went wrong on Sunday? And more importantly, is it a cause for concern entering the NCAA tourney? Is this just another Gator basketball team that is going to tease us with spouts of greatness only to make another early exit from the tourney?
The simple answer to all of that is not to fret. Kentucky is a very poor matchup for Florida, plain and simple. One of my favorite things about this Gators team compared to other Gator teams (barring the National Championship teams, of course) is the way they don’t rely on good shooting, and can win big games on bad shooting nights. One of the primary ways we do that is with dribble penetration from our guards off of on-ball screens, and deep entry passes to our big men.
Kentucky’s length took that away. And worse, much like in the Auburn game (where Florida struggled for the same reasons), it got into the Gators’ heads early.
After Boynton and Walker had a few shots blocked early on, they basically gave up on trying to take the ball to the basket. For the majority of the game, even if they got a step into the lane, they would pop back out and settle for a jump shot or give the ball up to someone else on the perimeter. They were content to pass and dribble around the 3-point line.
Vernon Macklin suffered the same fate. He’s had some minor struggles with turnovers when he puts the ball on the floor in the past, but those were amplified by the long arms of the Kentucky guards early in the game, who stripped him several times when he was making his moves down around the basket. Like the blocks did to the guards, these got into Macklin’s head, and they basically abandoned the inside game altogether.
Between the Walker/Boynton’s reluctance to drive to the basket, and their reluctance to let Macklin work inside, the Gators made almost no trips to the foul line, and were forced to rely on pure shooting in a game where they weren’t shooting particularly well.
It seemed that late in the game Billy finally got it into their head that their only chance was to keep playing their game and go inside with the ball, but even then they were defeated mentally. I think we’ve all been there, even if it was just in a pickup game. You get a few shots blocked and then all of the sudden when you go to the basket you’re more concerned about just getting the ball up without it being blocked than you are getting the ball into the basket. That was clearly something the Gators suffered from on Sunday, as I don’t think I’ve seen this team miss as many easy layups and easy put-backs (not to mention easy shots) all year long as they did late in this game alone.
So what does this mean for the tourney? Nothing, really. The Gators had an off night against a team that they match up poorly against and got walloped. This is college basketball, it happens. The fortunate thing is that the majority of teams that are similar to Kentucky with lots of long, athletic players (like Syracuse and Washington, not to mention Kentucky themselves) are on the opposite side of the bracket and likely will not have a path that intersects with Florida.